Big contracts face renewal in 2001 that will test the muscle of unions

If economy slows, the number of strikes is likely to decline as workers lose leverage.

After a seven-week strike - some of it involving picketing in sub-zero temperatures - Emil Fritz is glad to be back at work.

Union leaders "got what they were asking for - better wages for new hirees and the guaranteed health benefits," says Mr. Fritz, a worker at Olin Corp., a maker of copper alloys, ammunition, and chemicals here in East Alton, Ill.

Their apparent victory is a sign that despite the United States' cooling economy, strikes remain a potent weapon for organized labor. Already on the rebound in the past year, strikes could play a role in several huge contracts due to be negotiated this year, disrupting everything from airline flights to TV schedules. Whether they do depends, in large part, on the job market in the coming months.

Leverage index

If a recession boosts unemployment, union workers won't readily walk off their jobs, fearing others would take them, labor experts say.

But if the economy merely slows to a more moderate pace, unemployment should stay low and allow unions to press their advantage in a tight labor market.

"It's been so incredibly tight up to this point that even a slight loosening may still leave us with mostly full employment," says James Brock, an economics professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

"There might be some more strikes because workers feel some greater insecurity," adds Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They may feel concerned enough that they increase their militancy in bargaining."

Although union power and militancy have declined dramatically since the 1950s and '60s, strike activity has rebounded somewhat in the past year. It's not that the US has necessarily seen more strikes, but the work stoppages that do occur last longer and involve more workers.

Through July of 2000 (the latest figures available), the number of workers involved in major strikes (those involving 1,000 workers or more) jumped five times from the same period in 1999, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Worker days lost to strikes reached the highest level since at least 1989.

Last year was marked by several high-profile walkouts, including ones against telecommunications giant Verizon and Los Angeles County. Such well-publicized strikes "embolden other workers because of their success," says Mr. Chaison of Clark University.

Big contracts up for renewal

This year, more big contracts in high-profile industries will come due, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a private news organization based in Washington. For instance:

* The entertainment industry faces contract negotiations with two unions representing a total of 160,000 actors and writers.

* American Airlines and United Air Lines will negotiate contracts for a total of 51,000 employees.

* Four major telecommunications companies will face expired contracts for more than 150,000 workers.

Strikes in these industries could cause anything from airline flight disruptions to cancellation of new shows and more TV reruns and non-actor "reality shows" like "Survivor."

Despite the uptick in strike activity, a major upsurge of labor unrest is not very likely, labor economists say. That's because strikes remain risky for workers no matter how tight the labor market is.

For one thing, "companies don't leave themselves as vulnerable" as before, says Ray Hilgert, professor of management and industrial relations at Washington University in St. Louis.

Employers are quick to hire replacements and can launch broad advertising campaigns to attract a new labor force.

Some companies can contract out for their jobs, and many distribute their manufacturing through different plants so they can shift production.

If the economy turns sour, companies will have their own role in loosening the job market. To compensate for decreased production, companies can freeze hiring and lay off workers, thus creating a larger available workforce and weakening union leverage.

Olin as case study

Here in East Alton, for example, the 2,700 striking International Association of Machinists barely managed to hold their own against Olin Corp.

Even with the tight labor market, the company advertised for replacement workers and reportedly managed to hire some 900 new laborers over the holidays to keep production going.

Workers, meanwhile, will hang on to their guaranteed health benefits, and they won a raise for new hirees. Olin also agreed to fire the replacements and reinstate the machinists in a five-year contract accepted on Jan. 21.

"It took a lot of suffering for what they got out of it," says Professor Hilgert of the strikers.

But sometimes it's important to call a company's bluff even if the rewards are few, he adds. "The unions' main leverage is the strike. And if they simply threaten and threaten, then the company wouldn't take them very seriously."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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